Monday, January 23, 2012

The Searcher and the Sentinel (7/8)

This is another chapter/part/installment of a collaboration with the soon-to-be-renowned author J.R. Wagner . His parts, found below mine can also be found at the link. More on his forthcoming book Exiled, book one of The Never Chronicles, can be found here. My parts are going to be mostly raw and unedited, unless I find a little extra time. Enjoy:

The Sentinel
As we wound our way through the maze that was the second circle I marveled at the changes only a few years had wrought. The burned out husks of automobiles, so prevalent in the third circle, my circle, had been carefully placed to provide many defensive positions. Though the autos looked much like those in the third circle, and much like the ones that were said to have carried people along these streets, these were heavily reinforced. It would take many direct hits from the weapons found in the Districts to either punch through or move one of them.
Manny was leading the way, this was his circle, he knew the best routes and all of the passwords; and I would have been killed on sight had I not been with Manny, just like both Manny and I would be killed in the first circle had we not cajoled Davis into providing us with a legitimate pass. Third levels, like me, never go back, and second levels, well, normal second levels, only were allowed one trip back every year, if they lived that long and if they didn’t move out to the third level. Manny was an exception. He was the only person to have ever completed his time at third level, an accomplishment that was rewarded with a choice of stations and the ability to request permission to travel between levels. This, of course, did not mean that permission would be granted, but Manny so rarely asked, he was usually given the pass. Adding me to the request made it more difficult for Davis to sell to her superiors, but when she explained that the tools needed to teach the Searcher were in the first circle, and the only one who could retrieve them was Manny, and that Manny wasn’t going without his new bestest friend Grant (being the Searcher and all), her superiors relented.
“Hold up, Manny,” I called, he had increased his pace down the middle of a wide avenue flanked by beautifully crafted homes; I had been admiring the marble and stone facades and had slowed.
Manny stopped in the middle of the street, clearly exasperated with my pace and shouted for me to hurry up.
“But these places are incredible,” I called back, “Can’t we do a little exploring? I never saw this street when I worked the second circle.”
“There’s a reason for that, Grant,” Manny called, now beginning to look around warily, “See and autos here? And sentinels?”
It only took a second for me to catch on to what he was saying. This was a bewitched street, a fake, a creation of the hags and warlocks. There were probably rooms in those buildings with great big picture windows that showed lush green pastures, bright yellow sunlight, or the sparkling blue of an ocean. More illusions, none of it real. I quickened my pace.
Cathcing up to Manny I asked if many had been lost.
“Only six or seven,” he said as he turned and began to walk again, “and those are the ones who we know about, because they came back.”
We walked in silence for a while, each of us pondering the meaning of that statement. Coming back from captivity with the witches, with the warlocks, was not desired, not at all. It was better if they never came back, their disappearances blamed on one of the many other horrors that roamed the streets at night, horrors from below and above, that we could never really exterminate, nor did we want to, they kept both sides from the Districts at bay; it was worth the cost of a few lives per week.
“Are they still…” I started to ask.
“Only one left now,” Manny said, “he lives alone down where the river splits the second and third circle, no one goes near, but they say he sings at night.”
“Sings?” I asked.
“Yes,” Manny replied, “And they say he’s pretty good.”
“You’ve never gone to listen?” I asked.
Manny was quiet for a long time, long enough to walk the last block before the 30 foot high concrete wall blocked further movement in an easterly direction. We turned left and headed north.
“He was my bunk-mate,” Manny said at last.
I rued asking the question, but didn’t have time to apologize for dredging up old memories, we had arrived at the steel door that marked one of only three ground level access points to the first circle.

The Searcher
I opened my eyes fully expecting to wake in my bunk having never left for downtown.  Having never fallen through that hole.  Having never stepped on the body of that dead girl -the trauma of that experience would be too much to cope with.

A green blur -bright green, green that doesn't exist in the districts or downtown or anywhere that I've ever heard, filled my field of vision.  I blinked and the green came into the focus.  Green fields.  Expansive, rolling, a rock jutting out here and there until the green met with the blue waters beyond.  

Not a dream.  Any of it.  The girl. My God, the girl.  I stepped on her. I stepped in her.  She was so young. I've seen my fair share of death in my time.  I've never dealt any, contrary to what others believe.  I've always been one step removed from the death -a spectator. Never intimate with it.  I have an aversion to it. Most people will say that but when someone close to them is dying, they don't walk away. They don't hide.  I do.  In this world my fear is irrational at best and inexcusable at worst.  Death is everywhere. Somehow, I manage to avoid it. She, whoever she is, will haunt me for the rest of my days.

I was in a comfortable wooden chair with a cushioned seat.  I turned my head. I could move.  I was close to the large viewing window -right up against it almost. I looked down at my legs, which were bare.  Also, surprisingly, they were clean and free of the fine blonde hair that typically covered them.  I wiggled my toes.  They were neatly trimmed  Bright pink, of all colors.  I'd never seen painted toes before and found myself chuckling at the sight of them.

"Something funny, dear?" a woman's voice said.

I turned, it was the same woman from before. Beautiful dark hair -almost down to her hips.  Dark skin -not the darkest I've seen still much darker than mine -much more beautiful.  Dark skin is a desirable feature in the districts. This woman, despite her impossibly old age, would be very desirable.  She was holding something -a cup of steaming liquid.  She sipped on it gingerly as she moved closer.  Her movement was so smooth, so effortless, I wondered if she had feet beneath her floor-length dress.

"My toes," I replied.   "They're painted.  I've never seen painted toes before."

"I suppose then you haven't noticed your fingers," she replied in her unique yet whimsical accent.

I lifted my hand in front of my face.  Sure enough, the nails were neatly trimmed and painted a matching shade of pink.  I laughed again.  The woman smiled and closed her eyes as if the sound of my laughter was a most magical song.  I finally noticed my clothes.  I was wearing shorts and a matching top made from the softest fabric I'd ever felt.  Both were white with thin stripes of pink that exactly matched my nail color.  My arms were bruiseless, hairless and dirtless just like my legs.

"You were quite a mess when they brought you in here, Searcher, but I had plenty of time to get you fixed up," the woman said.

"How much time?" I asked. "How long have I been here?"

A concerned expression crossed the woman's face.  It left as quickly as it came.  She set her steaming drink on the wooden table and extended both hands toward me.  I looked at them, then looked at her.  She smiled.

"Take my hands, child and I will help you up and show you what you want to know."

I haven't accepted help from another person -not even a woman, in longer than I can remember.  I wasn't about to let things change simply because I was dead.  As I reached down for the armrests on my chair, I could feel her inside my head again.  It wasn't painful or invasive but it was clear she was trying to change my mind. I suddenly knew this would be the first time I'd stood since I'd gotten here.  I would most likely be unstable and there was a good chance, I would fall head-first through the glass viewing window, which, despite being dead, didn't sound like a good idea.

Reluctantly, I took her hands.  They were warm and smooth -so smooth. The wooden floor was warm as well.  As I shifted my weight over my feet, my knees began to object and sway in strange directions. I'd never had trouble holding up my own body weight.  This was crazy.  The woman slid her arm beneath mine and wrapped it around my back.  I could sense her strength even with the gentleness of her touch.  Her touch felt...well good. Amazing, actually.  It's been so long since I'd been in the embrace of another woman.  My apprehension drained from my body.

I took a few steps (it was obvious she was supporting a considerable amount of my weight as I did so) then she turned me toward the back wall of the room.  Standing in front of us was a woman who must have been the twin of the woman helping me stand.  She was helping a girl stand as well.  The girl was strange looking.  We both wore the same outfit, both had painted toes and fingers and even had the same skin tone yet there was something different about this girl.  Her face. She was very unlike the girls of the district.  Her hair was longer than any district girl -it came down to just above her shoulders.  It was not quite blonde and not quite brown -like the color of the leather we dried out in the summer sun during the hot months.  Her eyes were big and bright.  Her lips were full-too full and her teeth were white -too white.

As I studied this girl, she studied me -almost mimicking my behavior.  At first I didn't mind her looking at me but eventually, I could tell she was mocking me -trying to do exactly as I did.  I leaned in, she leaned in.  I put my free hand on my hip, she put her free hand on her hip.  I put my hand on my head, she... Then it struck me.  I could feel the hair on my head.  It was long.  Longer than it  has ever been.  It felt so smooth and soft.  I ran my fingers through it, she ran her fingers through it. That girl was me.


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